Abraham Lincoln thought “Love is eternal.” They are words he had inscribed on the wedding ring he gave to Mary Todd when he married her in 1842. Those same three words were also the title of Irving Stone’s 1954 novel about the couple. And in some ways Lincoln and Stone were correct.
Look at the 1861 letter of Union Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah two weeks before he died from wounds suffered at the battle of Bull Run—the letter was made famous by portions of it being read (by historian David McCullough) in Ken Burns’ PBS series “The Civil War.” A war that like so many in history testify to the tragic collective guilt of human beings.
In it Ballou writes:
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence can break . . . . If I do not [return], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name. . . . How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But [if I die] I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
Like Lincoln, Ballou thinks love is eternal—“my love for you is deathless.” He thinks this way because he believes his soul will live on after his death—“wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more,” he writes to Sarah. He also thinks it possible that “the dead can come back to this earth,” and if so, he will “always be near” her.
But even if he is wrong, even if dying is the end, even if there is no individual soul that continues to live on, there is still another sense in which love is eternal, or at least able to live on long after a “lover” has died. Take Ballou’s case. He died in 1861, and yet today 161 years later, his love still lives, at least in the minds of some people like me and others who remember it—perhaps from hearing portions of his letter read on “The Civil War” series. His love lives on in the sense that we know of it, and perhaps are even influenced by it, by his example.
Although there are many kinds of love, that which Ballou writes of to wife Sarah contains some of the best elements of various kinds. He realizes that his love for Sarah and his two young children competes with his love for his country—he was a strong supporter of Lincoln and realized how vital the war was for the future of our nation. It was this patriotism which led him, a 32-year-old lawyer and Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, to volunteer for Union service.
He writes “of all the blissful moments” he has spent with Sarah and how “deeply grateful” he is for them to God. Despite his great love for her, he is humble enough to realize that like all of us fallible humans he has often not been perfectly loving: “Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been!” But though at times erring, he adds, “How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm.”
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Finally, in case he is killed in battle and leaves Sarah a widow, he writes words to encourage her in her difficult days ahead: “Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their [two sons’] character.”
Ballou’s letter is now a historical document. Like other historical works, such as the Bible, the Quarn (Koran), Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (of famous Greeks and Romans), and the U. S. Constitution, it continues to live. Live in the sense that all such works are still there, still available to influence people’s lives. What may affect people may vary, but the values such historical works reflect—like love, courage, tolerance, and compassion—is one possibility.
Keeping the past, including past writings and thinking alive, is one of the great services that historians perform. In his Renaissance Thought II (1965), scholar Paul Kristeller wrote that the Renaissance “humanists considered classical antiquity their major guide and model in thought and literature and their moral writings are accordingly studded with quotations from Greek and Roman authors, with episodes from classical history and mythology, with ideas and theories derived from ancient philosophers and writers.”
Similarly, writers, scholars, and other artists from the early nineteenth century’s Romantic Age were often nostalgic for the past. Only they looked more longingly at Medieval thoughts and actions.
In our own time, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, historian Robert Dallek stated that he wrote Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life “to remind people, especially a younger generation with limited knowledge of American history, of what great presidential leadership looks like.” He already realized that Trump was unlikely to provide that type of leadership. By the end of 2018, the historian had concluded that the Trump administration was the most dishonest one he had “ever seen or studied.”
My own experiences as a historian have also led me to look to those now dead but who continue to inspire for guidance. In a previous essay on LA Progressive, for example, I mentioned how the opposition of the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) to racism and conservative nationalism influenced my own thinking in the 1960s. In two more essays (here and here) I indicated the relevance of Anton Chekhov, another Russian thinker and a contemporary of Soloviev, to many of our modern concerns.
These two Russians have not only influenced me but also countless others including a person that both former President Barack Obama and Pope Francis have referred to as a great American, Dorothy Day (1897-1980).
She loved Chekhov’s character and writings. Around 1973, she noted that his, “stories and letters are a never-failing inspiration now.” But she also loved his plays, for example finding Uncle Vanya, which she saw, “wonderful.” In the summer of 1977, she reread Chekhov’s The Island, his account of his trip to the prison colony of Sakhalin. A year later she mentioned wishing to reread it again.
There was also much she appreciated about Vladimir Soloviev. She especially liked his short book The Meaning of Love. In it he wrote: “True spiritual love is not a feeble imitation and anticipation of death, but a triumph over death, not a separation of the immortal form from the mortal, of the eternal from the temporal, but a transfiguration of the mortal into the immortal, the acceptance of the temporal into the eternal.” She would agree with the philosopher, and she herself in her paper The Catholic Worker and in her letters wrote very insightfully on love.
Thus, when we read “love is eternal,” it is not just an empty platitude. Love and other human manifestations can live beyond the person who manifests them. If one believes in “eternal life,” in an individual soul continuing to exist after death, then one might also believe, as Major Sullivan Ballou, Soloviev, and Day did, that such a soul can continue to love eternally. And even if death ends individual existence and thus any one individual’s ability to love beyond death, there is still another way for love to continue on, perhaps not forever, whatever that might mean, but at least for many centuries.
Plato believed in the eternal reality of ideas—e.g., love, beauty, courage. Although today few of us are Platonists, there is a certain sense in which ideas continue living on long after the death of individuals. Many, many “lovers” will die, but as long as humans, and perhaps even some animals, continue to exist, love will not. And the lives and words of certain “lovers,” like Jesus, Lincoln, Ballou, Soloviev, Chekhov, and Day, will continue to inspire. If the love they advocated is not eternal, it’s darn close.